There's no doubt that grassroots PR can be very effective as a PR
tool. But it's also a controversial one. That's because, for most
Americans "grassroots movements" bring to mind the stirring efforts of
ordinary citizens who rise up together to effect change beyond their
Now as we all know, that's not how it always works. In reality, citizens
are often either uninformed or unconnected - and it takes the work of PR
practitioners to educate them, fund them, and bring them all
Corporate America is, in effect, the binding agent for a cause.
But to most Americans, the idea of a grassroots movement started by a PR
department is paradoxical, if not absurd. And this makes it easy for the
media, and opponents, to suggest that, even when the campaign represents
the interests of ordinary consumers with real concerns, the efforts have
been "manufactured" - or in PR parlance, that they're "Astroturf" (see
PR Technique, p. 18).
While "Astroturf" in its truest sense - which is pure fabrication - is
easy to dismiss, there are other commonly used PR tactics which tread a
fine line between wholesome grassroots and evil "Astroturf," and it's
easy to overstep the mark. Creating a coalition with a misleading name
to mask your client's intent, or hiding the client's involvement in a
cause - while not technically "Astroturf" - nevertheless creates the
chance for naturally suspecting journalists to "expose" your cause, even
when your intentions are honorable.
In these murky waters between right and wrong, even the slightest hint
of deception must be avoided, and a perception of transparency must be
conveyed in everything you do. So before you consider a grassroots
campaign, we recommend that you anticipate how a journalist might write
the story on the front page of a national newspaper. Any strategy that
can't pass that test, shouldn't get past the conference room.
Weber Shandwick's second watershed As the PR industry tries to get its
head around the implications of Weber Shandwick's merger with BSMG, a
team of WSW executives were flying back from the IOC meeting in Moscow
celebrating another watershed in the history of PR.
The fact that this team had helped Beijing to persuade the IOC to give
the 2008 Olympics to China in the face of widespread public criticism of
China's human rights record (see Media Watch, p. 10) shows a new
sophistication in China's understanding of PR issues.
Of course, agency business has been picking up steadily in the country
over the past few years, as American corporations have set up shop in
China (see next week's Global Rankings issue for more details). But this
is the first time that the Chinese government has used Western PR
counsel, and its success will not be lost on the local public sector,
even more so now that Chinese companies are seeking to promote
themselves overseas with entry into the World Trade Association.
As WSW negotiates a new contract, it's possible that the Chinese
government may have cause over the next seven years to rue the day it
effectively invited the world's press to camp on its doorstep. On the
other hand, if WSW can persuade the Chinese government to effect the
promised social and political change, it would be PR's ultimate